CricViz Analysis: Why Aren’t Chasing Sides Winning?

Ben Jones analyses the two main trends in this World Cup – sides opting to chase, and that side then losing.

You have a bat, and we’ll have a bowl, then we’ll have a bat, and you have a bowl. It’s the rhythm of white ball cricket, the balance on which the game is built. Some sides prefer batting first, some prefer batting second, but ultimately, there is no structural advantage to doing either. You have to do one or the other at some point. You have to play well to win the game.

But there’s something odd going on in this World Cup. Captains aren’t reflecting this inherent balance. Instead, they are repeatedly opting to chase, doing so 18 times from 23 tosses; it’s a clear strategy that, across a range of teams and a range of conditions, different captains have seen as the best route to victory.

In actual fact, this preference for chasing is greater than it’s ever been in the modern era. None of the last eight World Cups have seen captains so regularly call correctly and send the opposition in. There is a bias in the 10 captains currently gallivanting around the United Kingdom, and it’s a bias we’ve not seen the like of in the last 30 years.

However, that bias is not showing up in the results. Just 10 of the 22 wins we have seen in the last month have come when chasing. That’s a win percentage of 45% – chasing right now is harder than teams, captains, and pundits think.

It really makes you ask – why are captains so in favour of doing something which, to all intents and purposes, isn’t favouring their team?

In part, they’re simply continuing a trend. There have often been drifts towards particular theories in cricket, drifts that take decision-making with it but leaving results behind. Over the last decade we’ve seen greater and greater numbers of captains opt to bowl first in ODI cricket, but as the two graphics below show, it has not been combined with any great increase in the success rate of chasing. Teams are chasing more, but it doesn’t mean chasers are winning more.

Perhaps the desire to chase is a result of T20, where chasing holds a genuinely easier route to victory. Another potential reason for captains chasing more regularly, in this particular tournament, is that there is a certain expectation of what conditions are going to be like. This is Britain. It’s rainy, it’s wet, it’s damp, it swing. Bowlers expect the ball to swing and seam; it’s been a torrential June, one of the wettest on record and, so people expect batting to be hard; there have been 10:30am start times, so people have expected to catch teams cold batting first.

Yet in reality, there has been no more movement in this World Cup than we’d expect in a normal ODI series. Bowlers aren’t finding more swing than usual with the new ball in the first innings, and are finding only slightly more seam movement. There is an obvious argument that captains are getting lulled into thinking that the early starts are going to make the ball do a bit more – and there’s no evidence that it’s done more than we expect at the start of a normal ODI.

In the context of misunderstanding the conditions, chasing makes sense. Cricket, conservative in every sense imaginable, has a weird perversion when it comes to punishing those who stray from the Normal Path. Bowl first on a flat deck – the most statistically successful way to win a match on a high-scoring pitch, by the way – and you’re derided. Nasser at Brisbane. Ponting at Edgbaston. It’s exaggerated in Tests, but the point stands that in popular cricketing culture, the worst thing a skipper can do is throw his bowlers under the bus. Call correctly, bat first, get rolled? Nobody gives a toss. Bowl first, on your best judgement, from a career of reading pitches? We’ll be in the carpark, waiting with a hammer.

When it comes down to it, there’s not more seam or swing movement available to the side bowling first in this World Cup. The size of the weapon is almost exactly the same regardless of whether you’re bowling first or second. Sides haven’t clocked this, hence the bias towards bowling first – but fundamentally there’s no atmospheric/conditional difference.

When the clouds are low and the umbrellas are quivering at half mast in the crowd, it’s far less risky to insert the opposition than to bat. If you bowl badly, and take no wickets, credit will likely go to the batsmen; if you bat, you will be blamed if you collapse. This sort of logic is clearly in play, when captains look nervously at the grey skies and send the opposition in, knowing that in this World Cup that leaves them vulnerable.

Of course – it doesn’t always leave them vulnerable. It’s also important to ask who has been chasing, and how often has it been the pre-match favourite.

In this World Cup so far, there have been 11 instances of the chasing side starting the match as favourites (i.e. with a WinViz of above 50%). In those 11 matches, the chasing side have won eight times. When the chasing side has been the better side – in the eyes of WinViz, at the start of the match – they have generally chased with a clear degree of success. When they haven’t been the better side, the chasing side has struggled; in the 12 matches where the side batting first was favourite at the beginning of the match, only twice has the chasing side gone on to win.

On top of this, there has been a tournament-wide trend of teams falling behind, and failing to recover. There has been a slight lack of ebb-and-flow classics – New Zealand v South Africa apart – and that is reflected in the WinViz patterns throughout the games. Only four games have been won by the side behind (with a WinViz of <50%) at the innings break, and of those four instances, only one (Bangladesh, against West Indies) has been the chasing side overturning that deficit. Games have been won before the halfway point.

So, in some ways it’s down to the fact that captains are making the wrong decision because of their own judgement; in some ways, it’s down to their own fear of failure; in some ways, it’s down to the fact that basically, the luck of the draw has ensured that the better side has been batting first more often than not.

In the end, perhaps it does come down to pressure. Perhaps, in the intensity of a World Cup, everything returns to that baseline equality – half of games are won by the side batting first, and half by the side batting second. Really though, underneath it all, what we’re dealing with are the cultural quirks of generations. Some prefer the focus of batting second and knowing a target, some prefer the lack of ceiling provided by batting first. Some players suited to batting with the handbrake off and some to batting with the finish line in sight.

You have a bat, and we’ll have a bowl, then we’ll have a bat, and you have a bowl. It’s the rhythm of white ball cricket, the balance on which the game is built. Some sides prefer batting first, some prefer batting second, but ultimately, there is no structural advantage to doing either. You have to do one or the other at some point. You have to play well to win the game.

Ben Jones is an analyst at CricViz.

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